NASA Retires Last S-3B Viking


NASA’s Glenn Research Center has announced that it plans to retire its Lockheed S-3B Viking research aircraft after 16 years of service. The last example of the model still flying, NASA acquired its S-3B from the U.S. Navy in 2004. The aircraft has been used primarily for flight communications research, including missions designed to help “define communications standards that the [FAA] can apply to the unmanned aircraft systems for safe operation in U.S. airspace.”

“This old aircraft has been a huge part of ushering in the future of aviation,” said NASA Command and Control project lead Mike Jarrell. “The S-3B has been a perfect match for our research. It has a nice flat bottom where we can mount a variety of antenna; it flies steady and goes low and slow so we can communicate with ground stations.”

Following its official retirement, NASA’s S-3B will be displayed at the San Diego Air and Space Museum. An exact date for its final flight has not yet been announced. According to NASA, its advanced air mobility communications research will be continued using a T-34 Mentor.

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Kate O’Connor works as AVweb's Editor-in-Chief. She is a private pilot, certificated aircraft dispatcher, and graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

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  1. Replaced by a T-34 Mentor. Interesting that the replacement was an even OLDER design than the Viking–1974 for first fleet use for the Viking–the 1950s for the Mentor, and the 70s for the “Turbine Mentor.”

    Interesting paragraph in Wikipedia about the ejection sequence for 4 seats–with a photo. Rear seats eject first under the “eject all” option–followed half a second later by the pilots–and if there is no 3rd or 4th seat, it must be filled with ballast.

  2. The Mentor (Turbine Mentor?) will in no way be a replacement for the S-3. Though it didn’t excel at any of its mission capabilities, the S-3 was the Swiss Army knife of Naval Aviation, and that may have led to its early retirement from the Fleet. It did more in one platform than any other airplane in the Navy’s inventory. Originally designed as a “blue water ASW” replacement for the S-2, the S-3A carried torpedoes internally for its primary mission. But it had secondary and tertiary mission capabilities of mining, bombing, air-to-surface rockets and was later modified to S-3B, with upgraded electronics and radar and added countermeasures, giving it guided air-to-surface capabilities as well as making it the primary air wing aerial refueling platform.

    It was the express mail delivery platform in the Indian Ocean, bringing Christmas cards and packages from Diego Garcia to Gonzo Station, doing in less than a day what usually took several days for the replenishment ships to deliver. Word passed quickly throughout the ship when the flight from “Dodge” was inbound.

    The S-3 truly was the “Jack of all trades, but Master of none.”

    She will be missed.

    • You are correct–no way will the Turbine Mentor replace the Viking. I too was struck by the incongruity of that statement–that’s why I mentioned it.

      Other note from Wikipedia: The Viking has the safest safety record in the Navy’s jet fleet”–that’s why it was picked for the mission.

      Quite a lot of accolades for an “obsolete” aircraft!

  3. Why was it retired?

    Wikipedia briefly mentions a fatigue test done to extend life by 11,000 hours to keep USN’s in service until 2009.

    Wikipedia points to usefulness potential today including refueling fighters to get more range for protecting aircraft carriers against emerging longer range weapons. (US naval oriented services use C-130s for refueling helicopters, they go 350 knots at modest altitudes, have been demonstrated on carriers, J model has more power but also more weight due longer fuselage.)

    • I saw this airplane at Oshkosh some years ago (possibly in 2017 or 2018) and it was on it’s last legs then. The crew said they didn’t fly it any more than necessary because it was becoming so difficult to support from a maintenance/parts perspective. Also, they only had two pilots who were qualified to fly it. Every year, each pilot would (in turn) “check out” the other pilot for currency. No matter how good an airplane, any last-of-breed is a challenge to operate for any meaningful purpose.

      For the communications support mission, you’d think NASA has a King Air or two sitting around somewhere that could easily be put into that use.

      • Thanks.

        Parts support by manufacturers can be a big problem, sometimes on new aircraft.

        Augusta Westland did not get the Canadian ASW helicopter contract in part because CF were unhappy with support for the A-W SAR helicopters operated by Canada.

        Question is what NASA will do without a flying test bed. Things can be tacked on King Air, I suppose, a proven airframe with belly pod, rear fuselage strakes, and an aft fuselage radar dome available at least from third parties.

    • It was retired because all the Armed Services are only given a limited amount of funding by Congress each year, which has to be used to pay for either newer, more expensive to maintain platforms, or older, expensive to maintain platforms. The S-3 was at the bottom of the funding ladder and was thus easy for the Navy to let go.

      From its entry into the Fleet, the S-3 never had enough spare parts. Every end of cruise saw the returning squadron forced to trade fully mission capable aircraft to the next squadron in line to deploy, or robbing parts from those full mission capable aircraft, for the other squadron’s hangar queens.

  4. Military aircraft parts procurement has always been a problem largely due to funding with its archaic process of actually obtaining money. Lockheed is still in business and Davis-Monthan is filled with retired S-3’s. Support is technically available. However, if funds allocated are not spent, the next budget allocation for the following year becomes smaller. Can’t have that. So spend every last dime each year to make sure the following year’s budget allocation goes up. This system of financing the military ensures the survivability of the bureaucracy.

    Military preparedness, common sense applied to maximize usage of existing, successful assets does not enter into the equation. Similar to those who have already commented, my Naval aircraft maintenance experience demanded a lot of out of the box creativity regarding parts procurement, meaning knowing the “system” and figuring out ways to get around that bureaucratically created mess. Therefore, I am not really surprised NASA is turning to the T-34 as replacement for the S-3B.

    The piston T-34 can be flown by most GA pilots. Virtually anyone with a PPL can easily be qualified to fly the T-34 eliminating the S-3B experience and currency requirements. Great aftermarket parts support for the T-34 outside of the military “system”. NASA’s budget’s up’s and down’s due to current political viewpoints determined by whatever party has the most power can be circumvented somewhat by civilian parts, civilian maintenance, and civilian pilot availability that can support the piston T-34 vs a S-3B. The T-34C is quite a different airplane than the piston T-34A/B models requiring military support for parts mainly. Only about 2-3 Charlie models are in the hands of civilians. Restoring, flying, and maintaining a Charlie Mentor vs the T-34A/B is vastly more expensive.

    As a result, it makes great sense for NASA to fly a piston Mentor or two for research, especially when it is used for potential integration of unmanned and manned aircraft into the FAA controlled ATC system. All this new drone technology is becoming smaller, lighter, and much easier to install in a T-34 vs a military jet. The T-34 is a proven, highly maneuverable, delight to fly airplane. Hey, maybe an average GA pilot, especially those with T-34 and/or Bonanza experience can soon apply for a NASA research pilot position!